Sunday, July 29, 2012

The coolest of all the summer staples

(From today's Times and News-Star)

The problem with making homemade ice cream when you were a kid is it seemed to take forever to freeze.


I scream, you scream, we all scream if the homemade ice cream won’t freeze.

It was like waiting for school to let out or Christmas morning to come. Though the object is the polar opposite, waiting on ice cream to freeze is the same metaphorically as waiting for the watched pot to boil.

“Is it ready yet?”

But some things are worth waiting on: A woman. Game 7. That first autumn day.

And homemade ice cream. The best things just won’t be rushed.

Seems like when we were kids that making homemade ice cream was about as common as shucking corn. On our back porch were muddy boots, a mop and broom, emergency dog food in case scraps were in short supply, a deep freeze filled with stuff in white packing paper and clear quart bags, and a gradually rotting wooden ice cream tub and briny crank handle contraption. Always in the bottom of the tub was the white rock salt residue that never quite came out.

Never did I know as a child what the rock salt was for, only that you “needed it” to “make the ice cream freeze.” That’s what the grownups said. Grownups took a lot of time not explaining stuff to us back then.

“But why?” a little person would say.

“Because I said so,” a big person would say.

It was a simpler time.

Naturally, we just assumed the salt kept the ice cream from contracting rickets.

I have since learned (off the streets) that the salt combines in some  chemical way with the ice to lower the temperature a bit below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, thus assuring that the mixture inside the Magic Silver Tube, surrounded by ice, freezes.

It’s one of those science deals.

A couple of weeks ago at the beach, my high school friend J.C. Penney (the four-time Louisiana state 4-H Good Grooming Champ back in the day, which is another column for another time) ran out of salt and out of luck while attempting a homemade batch. He bought salt the next morning and added it to the ice. Less than 20 minutes of churning later, the ice cream was tight as Dick’s hat band and cold as a penguin’s nose. Sweet.

Folks don’t seem to make homemade ice cream as much today as they used to. And that’s a shame. Making homemade ice cream taught us some handy life lessons that today’s kids miss out on.

True, food folk have figured out how to make Food You Buy At The Store better. Preservatives and whatnot. Cake mixes are about as good from the box now as the ones you can make from scratch. What I’m saying here is that if you’ve eaten Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla, I can pretty much rest my case.

But in the days before electric churns, making homemade ice cream taught you patience and safety. The first thing our dads had us boys do was sit on the top of the freezer while they hand churned. This took a calendar day and you couldn’t feel your frozen butt until Tuesday.

The next growing-up step was to sit on the churn and turn it at the same time. This required dexterity and skill, because you haven’t lived until you’ve been churning and accidentally hit yourself in a delicate area. Some things you can feel, even frozen. I scream, you scream…


Sunday, July 22, 2012

A true cinematic caper: Film at 11

(From today's Times and News-Star)

Although picture show management frowns on people carrying concessions into the theatre, this does not stop us from doing it. Most people get away with it.

But not everybody. Not all the time.

A grandmother I know – we’ll call her The Matinee Momma, alias Cinematic Sally, alias Showtime Susie – has long prided herself on hauling edible loot and grandchildren to summertime movies. Often they see Disney pictures promoting the high moral roads of loyalty, goodness, justice and brotherly love. Nothing says justice quite like low overhead/high profit. (I’m thinking here of an $8 tub of 75-cent popcorn and a $25 Nestle Crunch.)

In a valiant attempt to beat The Man, The Matinee Momma – alias Reel Rebel Rhonda, alias Picture Show Paula, alias Movietime MawMaw – for years upon years has sneaked eats and drinks into cinemas all over north Louisiana. Literally, she was packing.

But not heat. Just eats. In a purse the size of Mickey Rooney.

One this particular mid-week afternoon, she paid for five tickets for an animated afternoon matinee. A grandmother and four of her grandchildren. Nothing to see here, right?

(Side note: One of her older grandchildren has for years refused to go on these outings, or “sprees,” as I like to call them, because she “knew grandmomma was gonna get caught someday.” Sure enough, “someday” was this day a couple of weeks ago. This particular grandchild, “The One With No Record,” as she is now referred to in the family, is still grateful for her foresight. And for Netflix.)

The group handed over their tickets and quick-stepped toward the theatre. It was at this point that an overeager teenaged summer hire asked The Matinee Momma if she maybe, you know, had anything in her purse, like possibly concessions, or the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers.

If looks could kill.

“Taking food into the show’s illegal, you know,” the usher said.

It was here that my criminally minded friend stole a line from the original “Bad News Bears” movie and said, “So is murder. Shut up before you get me in REAL trouble.”

They continued with purpose into the door, down the aisle and to their seats, this grandmother and her impressionable grandchildren, (a.k.a, The Dalton Gang). When a reasonable amount of time had passed, she opened her purse and passed out four bags of popcorn and four drinks.

Should have gotten twist tops. The tab-top “Pzzzzzz POP!” is what gave the crew away, but only because the simultaneous openings sounded like mortars going off, or a fireworks show.

The young manager showed up, in the dark, during the movie. He was nice and reasonable but still the grandkids cowered a bit, having never seen their grandmother asked to assume the position. Ever been frisked for Milk Duds? It makes the airport security check seem like child’s play.

In classic Matinee Momma fashion, she turned things around and asked the dutiful manager, “So, what do you want me to do? Throw it all out? Send it to starving kids in China? Give you $157 dollars for five popcorns and five drinks? What will it BE?”



“I missed what Lord Macintosh just said,” some kid whined. “Please, please make it stop! Oh, the humanity!!!”

It’s over now. The food’s been dumped, along with any grandchild’s hopes of a really big score, like maybe someday sneaking in a No. 6 from Wendy’s. It’s not that crime doesn’t always pay. It’s just that, hey, that’s showbiz.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Pork and Snake: It's What's For Dinner

(Reprinted from Sunday's Times and News-Star)

“Did I tell you I almost hit a pig coming to work yesterday?”

The lady was not talking to me, which was no surprise. No one talks to me unless the paper needs changing in the copy machine, or somebody needs a paper clip.

But when I overhear something like “I almost hit a pig” – really, when I hear pork-related discussion of almost any kind -- I pay attention. I am pro-pork. I know it. You know it. The American people know it. I have a special place in my heart for pork. A special place in my stomach too. A guy told me this week of a place in St. Louis that deep-fries the bacon on its BLTs. Finding that joint might be my vacation this year.

So anyway, she was saying “Did I tell you I almost hit a pig coming to work yesterday?” 

I wanted to correct her and mention that surely the pig was not coming to work, that she should have said, “Did I tell you that, as I was coming to work yesterday, I almost hit a pig?” But I felt a lesson about misplaced modifiers might mess up the flow of the story. Maybe even cause her to beat me up. I grew up around pigs and can say that when people are almost hit by one, they get testy.

Turns out, the pig was indeed not going to work. It was just crossing the rural road, hunting in the woods, rooting around.

“It was big as your desk, and almost as wide,” she said. “It was black. A big black pig. And it’s not quite daylight yet, you know?, and something’s just coming out in the road, out of the woods, well, it was like my mind wasn’t quite there yet. My awake mind is saying to my still sort of asleep mind, ‘That might be a pig you’re fixin’ to hit.

“It was! So I hit the other lane and I jumped and it jumped and then went back into the woods. There’s no telling how big that thing was.”

She relaxed for a moment, to let the story really sink in, to let our minds understand the ramifications: What if she HAD hit the pig? What if the pig really WAS going to work?, maybe even on its first day on a new job? What if it showed up today, looking for the person who almost hit it?

“I almost hit a pig,” she said again. (I wanted to ask her why she didn’t oink her horn. You can understand why I didn’t.)

While the pig got away clean, the rattlesnake in her life was not so lucky.

Realizing I was listening, and knowing I was interested in all things rural, she later sent me a picture of her mother-in-law holding a dead rattlesnake beside her so that it was as tall as she was. Mom was wearing a lime two-piece summer shorts set, had red clods on her feet and a .45 caliber in her free, non-snake-holding hand. A mutt named Lucy was looking on, somewhat curiously, probably making a mental note never to pee on this gal’s couch.

I pray Lucy is not as stupid as she looks.

It appears that between a pistol-packing in-law and a daily drive through boar-infested back roads, my friend who almost hit the pig is dealing with some clear environmental factors that could well qualify her for reality TV, should “Welcome To My Big Redneck Life” become interested.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book Lover’s Diary: Good Summer Stuff

(From today's Times and News-Star)

Mark Twain said the man who won’t read has no advantage over the man who doesn’t read at all.

Sounds a bit egotistical or presumptuous, as it’s hard to make time to read when you’ve got toddlers, the cat threw up on the couch and your plumbing’s backed up.

Nevertheless, Twain’s right, as he was about a lot of things. (Things like “Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first,” and “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”)

So read when you can because reading -- to paraphrase what Twain said about doing the right thing – will gratify some people and astonish the rest. If you don’t know what to take with you on vacation, or what to have close on a rainy Saturday, suggestions from some books I’ve read since January:

The best book I’ve read this summer is “Hellhound on his Trail,” by Hampton Sides. I missed its release in 2011 but stumbled on it by accident and finished it last night. It’s about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the search for his assassin, a chase that lasted 65 days. Reads like a crime novel, except it’s all true. Crime novel/history lesson. Jackie Kennedy visited Coretta King at Mrs. King’s home the morning of MLK’s funeral; the two dismissed themselves for a semi-private conversation in a bedroom and were “leaning toward each other,” wrote a Newsweek reporter, “like parentheses around the tragic half decade.” In two months, Ethel Kennedy would join them as one of “America’s three widows.” News about the MLK assassination on television is the first time I can remember watching TV and knowing something tragic and important was happening; I was 8 when King was killed, April 4, 1968.

“The Girl Who Played With Fire” is better/faster than “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” but the final book wraps up this bestselling trilogy. Author Steig Larsson’s death means we will get no more of this “Girl,” one of the most modern and intriguing characters in fiction. You do not want to be on her bad side.

Took three days and re-read the historical fiction classic from 1977, “The Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s account of those three days at Gettysburg. (By the way, detective-wise, you can never go wrong with Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. Sweet.)

“The Art of Fielding” by first-time author Chad Harbach is friendship and growing up and growing old in a college baseball setting. Not for everyone but I liked it.

If you like Dick Van Dyke, his “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business” autobiography has pictures and an easy-to-read account of what happens when timing and the right personality intersect. He’s the reason I’ve always felt it would be fun to write for a funny TV show, as his character Rob Petrie did for “The Alan Brady Show.” By the way, the older high school friend Van Dyke looked up to was a guy named Gene Hackman.

“A Very Short Introduction to the First World War” is less than 160 pages and is all you need unless you are hungry to keep up with towns and generals you’ve never heard of. Trench warfare moves slow.

I’m out of room but Winston Groom’s Civil War-era “Shrouds of Glory” is good and his new “Shiloh 1862” is better. Second-best book of the summer: “The Last Boy,” the newest on Mickey Mantle, by Jane Leavy. Bittersweet.